The bars next door

As the city explores new rules for nightclubs and bars, how goes SoHo?

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click to enlarge PARTY CENTRAL: A Friday evening at MacDinton’s, already crowded by 6:30. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
PARTY CENTRAL: A Friday evening at MacDinton’s, already crowded by 6:30.

In late October of 2011, a stricken Sharon Jones came before Tampa City Council, tears flowing down her face. “This is my only child. My only son. Please, I’m asking you to close this down … please shut this down.”

“This” was Club Empire, for years a site of violence both indoors and out on Seventh Avenue in Ybor City. After Jones’s son, 20-year-old Leslie Jerome Jones, Jr., was shot and killed at the controversial hip-hop club, she had plenty of company in calling for the club’s demise. There was even talk of lawsuits being prepared against the city unless something was done about the notorious establishment.

But there was and is nothing in the city’s code that allows for public officials to close down a business without due process — despite the fact that there had been prior shootings and stabbings around the facility, with police being called for service over 100 times that year.

The collective anger turned to joy a few weeks later when club owner Joel Brewer voluntarily shut down the club, after business had trickled to anemic proportions.

But the anger among Ybor club owners remained palpable, perhaps best expressed by The Dirty Shame manager Richard Boom, who asked, “How high does the stack of bullshit have to be against this specific club before you can literally say, ‘That’s enough. You’re out of business’?”

Upon some recommendations by Council members, last May City Attorney Rebecca Kert issued a series of recommendations for dealing with potential Club Empires in the future, including a ban on admitting anyone under 21 and a mandate that nightclubs hire off-duty police officers. Those ideas petrified both business owners and young patrons, and a social media campaign brought dozens of them to City Hall May 24.

Mermaid Tavern owner Lux DeVoid told the Council that the cost of just one police officer on duty “would exceed our entire payroll for the rest of the staff.”

Alan Kahana, who runs a number of establishments in Ybor including Czar, said he sells lots of Red Bulls, Coca-Colas and bottled waters to patrons between the ages of 18 and 20, and that if the city were going to prevent those under 21 from entering clubs, it should do the same thing at stadiums, the Straz Center and any other place that serves alcoholic beverages.

Nine months later, city officials and bar owners are now closer to formulating rules that will define what a nightclub is and what it would require for an owner to fall out of compliance and lose the ability to sell alcohol. But they’re not there just yet.

Officials are working with the idea of requiring clubs to acquire an annual Business Operating Permit.

At a recent GaYBOR Business Coalition meeting, president Carrie West told his members of the importance of the meetings that have been held in recent months. “This is government getting in your face,” he said.

Although most of the discussion of Business Operating Permits has focused on Ybor City, city officials are now working with restaurant and bar owners across the city on a policy. That includes the busiest street where locals and tourists are getting their drink on that’s not Seventh Avenue.

That would be the strip of clubland known as SoHo. In recent years South Howard Avenue has been a crush of humanity on weekend nights, inviting comparisons to Ybor that are not meant as a compliment.

Councilwoman Mary Mulhern describes the area as “like Gasparilla every weekend,” referring to the thousands of mostly 20-somethings who flock to establishments like MacDinton’s, World of Beer, SoHo Tavern, and the Dubliner. Councilman Mike Suarez refers to the Thursday through Saturday night scene as “overwhelming” in what had traditionally been considered a mixed-use community, and which some neighborhood activists complain has become anything but.

Local residents say the two biggest problems in the area are parking and noise — particularly amplified noise. The latter is the issue that neighbors complain about most frequently to Tampa police, although not in great numbers.

Del Acosta is Tampa’s former historic preservation manager and a Hyde Park neighborhood activist. He calls weekends in SoHo a “bad scene” and attributes part of the problem to a City Council that gets intimidated too easily by city land use attorneys into accepting wet zoning applications, now called special use permits. “I just don’t understand that,” he complains. If land use laws don’t provide enough flexibility, he says, “maybe the Council should adopt a policy of saying there should be no more bars. It’s just not a healthy environment.”

One very real reason the Council doesn’t want to disobey its staff or attorney recommendations is the threat of being sued and having to make a hefty payout, which is exactly what happened last year, going back to a development proposed in 2003. That’s when the city’s Architectural Review Commission rejected a proposal by Citivest Construction Corp for a high-rise project at the corner of Bayshore and DeSoto Avenue.

There was strong neighborhood opposition to the plan, to back up the ARC rejection. The developer appealed the decision to the City Council, which upheld the commission’s position. Citivest then sued the city and won. Ultimately the city paid out $3.75 million, the largest settlement in any land use case in the history of Tampa, after the developers argued it had lost millions because of the city’s actions.

City Councilman Mike Suarez says that the Council is frequently caught between the demands of developers and angry neighborhood residents. “Unfortunately, people come down to Tampa with pitchforks and torches and say you have to do this or we’re going to be really angry, we’re going to take it out on you.” Making decisions on special use permits, he says, is the most difficult thing that any councilmember has to do.

The council has had less autonomy the past two years regarding special use permits. Previously any such request had to come before them. An establishment requesting a permit was also subject to a 1,000-foot setback from similar businesses, homes, churches and schools.

But since 2011, the Council itself changed the rules fairly dramatically, with many of those requests now bypassing the members and going straight to the city’s zoning administrator.

One community activist who has been a constant thorn at City Hall over the years is Vicky Pollyea, the president of the Bayshore Gardens Neighborhood Association. She says activists like herself are often described as trying to limit development and stunt job growth, but counters that the reason developers are forced to go in front of Council in the first place is that they’re requesting variances from the city code.

The section of Howard between Swann and Kennedy Boulevard sees the biggest increase in population on weekends, and now Pollyea has concerns about another addition to the scene: a proposed project by Irish 31 owner Jay Mize at the northeast corner of Azeele and Howard. That development includes an outdoor deck whose footprint is nearly double the size of the interior, and where the intention is to have amplified music performed in the evening. “They’re literally 75 feet away from single-family homes,” Pollyea warns.

SoHo Tavern owner Tony Friel also lives in the district. He thinks such complaints are overrated, saying the only complaints he hears about are from the “same three residents” who attend regular Council meetings.

Harry Cohen represents the SoHo area on City Council. He says he’s most concerned about the congestion, parking problems and the inability of residents in the area to simply get in and out of their homes. He says there probably should be fewer parking waivers for bar and restaurant owners, which allow them to reduce the amount of parking they provide.

“When you have a neighborhood like that where there’s clearly a great strain on the existing resources and on the existing neighborhoods, you’ve got to be very careful when you look at these waivers,” he says.

Since 2009, parking restrictions from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. have been enacted in the Courier City section of the area (between Swann and Kennedy, Armenia and South Packwood Avenue). Residents must obtain permits to park to preclude partygoers from jamming the streets adjoining Howard Avenue. Although each address gets an additional guest permit and can gain access to more from the city for a small charge, the policy does rule out any spontaneous gatherings.

SoHo Tavern’s Friel says that’s only exacerbated parking problems in the district. “Everybody is still coming to Howard,” he says. “They’re just walking another four blocks to park.”

Tampa Police Major Paul Driscoll says more patrons are taking cabs to South Howard, so many on weekend nights that there have been discussions about creating a cab stand to alleviate congestion.

Unlike Ybor City, there are no public parking garages in the area, though some neighborhood activists think it’s time for some of the businesses to buy unused land for that purpose.

Patrick Venable is a local attorney who pops into SoHo on occasion these days, but used to frequent the area more often about five to six years ago, when he says there was more of a solid core of young professionals from around 25 to 35 who filled the local bars. Admittedly older himself now at 34, he says there are more college students than ever in the area, and at times he feels it gives off a “Jersey Shore” vibe. He says he sympathizes with the neighbors on issues like parking and noise.

Councilwoman Yolie Capin says she thinks the area is at the point of “oversaturation,” and predicts the council won’t be offering too many parking waivers in the immediate future. Some of her colleagues say problems also exist in enforcing whether an establishment is actually selling more food than alcohol.

Councilwoman Mary Mulhern, who lives in South Tampa, questions why the city would want to have multiple areas in the city that are considered “intense” for drinking. “This is a historic district,” she says. “One of the best residential areas in the whole county, with the best schools. Why should it be a bar district?”

For better or worse, it is one now. How it develops in the future is the question.

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